Letters on Theism and Naturalism #1

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 31, 2010 in Letters

(What is this? See here.)

To my atheist brother

Dear Karl,

Greetings from your brother Paul. Long time no see!

As you know, Zeitgeist will be publishing our letters. So let me set the stage for the 400,000 people who will be peeking over your shoulder as you read this.

You and I were raised in Blaine, Minnesota by two loving Christian parents. We went to church together, we went to a private Christian school together, you dated my ex-girlfriend (but don’t worry; I’ve forgiven you), and we even attended the same University of Minnesota.

At university, the things we learned about biology, cosmology, and the Bible really tested our Christian faith. I came out the other side with what is, I hope, a more mature understanding of God. You came out the other side having lost your faith completely.

I’ve always respected you for your willingness to submit to what you think is the truth, even at high cost. Your crisis of faith strained some of your closest relationships. You lost Chloe, your fiancé. And you had to chart a course for a new career, because you had been planning to enter the ministry.

But I still think you’ve made the wrong choice. God is real, and I know he’s calling you back to Him.

We haven’t spoken much about these issues since our undergraduate studies. But as it turns out, we both decided to become professional philosophers! So I’m sure we both have some familiarity with the usual reasons given for believing or disbelieving in God.

My specialty is philosophy of religion, and I know yours is not, so I’m not sure how much you’ve read on the topic. But I do know that I now have pretty good answers to the tough questions you were asking during your crisis of faith, when I had no answers to give.

I’d also like to assure you that we all agree the cute syllogistic arguments from Anselm and Aquinas provide no reasons for believing in God. The case for God – what we call “natural theology” – jumped forward leaps and bounds in the last 60 years.

But I suspect that the arguments for and against the existence of God are not the real problem. I think we can both admit that even we philosophers rarely change our mind because of the arguments. We usually change our mind when something seems right to us, or seems wrong to us.

Given enough time, I think I can make a good case for the existence of God. But I doubt that would persuade you. What will persuade you is a personal encounter with the living God. So what I’d like to ask is not for you to read the latest arguments from Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne and others. Instead, I’d like to ask you to keep your heart open.

Keep your heart open to the possibility that God is real, and that He loves you. You could even ask Him to speak to you. If He’s not there, then no big deal. But if He is there – no matter how unlikely you think it to be – then opening your heart to his presence could make all the difference in the world.

Love,

Paul

cloud_breakTo my Christian brother

Dear Paul,

It’s always great to hear from you, though these 400,000 people staring over my shoulder make me a bit nervous. They weren’t there when I published “Physicalism, Supervenience, and the Ontology of Morals” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. I wonder why that is?

I appreciate your respect for my honest pursuit of truth. Of course I know you have the same passion; that’s why we both became philosophers!

You’re right that I’m not as familiar with contemporary philosophy of religion as you are, though I have read some Plantinga. You’re also right that we all usually believe things based on what seems right to us, though I do my best to follow the arguments where they lead.

My reasons for disbelief in God, especially, are probably the same reasons that most atheists have for disbelieving in God:

The world is full of pointless suffering that an all-powerful, all-good God would not permit. The universe does not appear benevolent, but instead indifferent to our pain or pleasure.

The major religions look exactly like what we would expect from ancient superstition, full of wild mythology and a grandiose picture our place in the world that doesn’t fit with what science has taught us.

There are hundreds of religions. If God wanted people to know him, why wouldn’t he communicate more clearly, so that billions of people weren’t mislead by a false religion? And why would he allow nearly a billion people around the world like me to see no evidence of him at all?

…and so on. I know there are Christians answers for these questions, but they were never convincing to me.

Finally, let me assure you I have kept my heart open to the possibility of God. In some ways, I would be quite relieved to rediscover God. I wish very much that I could live forever, and never be truly separated from the people I love. I wish I could believe that in the end, those who are persecuted on earth will be blessed in the afterlife, and those who are evil on earth will be punished. I wish I could believe that the Creator of the universe is my personal friend; that I’m on the winning team. So yes, I will always keep my heart open to the possibility of God.

Paul, you might think I wish you would “see the light” and give up Christianity. But I’m not sure I do. I see how your faith inspires you to serve others and help the poor, for example with the wells you helped dig in Zambia. I wouldn’t want to interfere with that.

Whatever Christopher Hitchens says, religion has not poisoned you. It has only made you a better humanist – ha! – and I wish you well.

Love,

Karl

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

CRL January 31, 2010 at 9:22 am

Reginald Selkirk: I think you misunderstood what Paul was trying to say here. He wasn’t trying to “emotionally blackmail” Karl back into religion by reminding him of what he had lost; he was commending Karl’s courageous ability to honestly seek truth, regardless of the consequences to his life.

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Erika January 31, 2010 at 9:33 am

One thing I notice right away, and perhaps this is not the right place to address this concern, is that both brothers seem to know what it means to keep their heart open. I, however, have always had trouble with the phrase. I know how to keep my mind open. I know how to always be skeptical of the ideas I hold. But I do not know what it means to keep my heart open.

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Jake de Backer January 31, 2010 at 9:58 am

I completely empathize with Erika. That phrase makes my frontal lobes swell. It is so ambiguous and quasi-spiritual and is a typical closing remark for the desperate apologist antagonist. I’ll keep my mind open to evidence and spiritual experience but my heart stays closed unless by-pass is required.

J.

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Reginald Selkirk January 31, 2010 at 11:24 am

You lost Chloe, your fiancé.

Good riddance to bad rubbish. Do you,as a philosopher of religion, understand the difference between a rational argument and emotional blackmail? Isn’t it slimy and disrespectful to use the latter rather than the former?

God is real, and I know he’s calling you back to Him.

Mr. philosopher of religion: How can you “know” this about God? Why should I put any more weight on your “knowledge” than on Bo and Peep’s “knowledge” that the alien UFO was going to “take them to the next level” after they drank the cyanide?

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MC January 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I would love to read a paper called “Physicalism, Supervenience, and the Ontology of Morals”.

How egotistical… It sounds like something I’d write, actually!

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Steven Stark January 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I like the phrase “keep your heart open”. It’s about remembering how much mystery there is, of how wild existence itself is – and that assumptions are dangerous to living in this moment.

Sometimes I think we should wipe our minds clean of world views, of learning, just temporarily, and just be aware. It’s a burden to carry around a heavy worldview in your head all the time to interpret and filter life. Give the “thinking mind” a rest, trust your inner nature and keep your heart open. I find this refreshes the thinking mind as well- which I need, since I tend to be a compulsive thinker.

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Alex January 31, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Ugh. Whenever I see theists use the word “know” I cringe (as in “I know God is real”), as they assuredly do *not* know, what they mean is “feel.” Science, on the other hand, is a methodology for gathering knowledge, and atheism when walking hand in hand with science can claim as such, albeit not on its own. To know something is more than just a collaborate agreement of notions, feelings and ideas; it is the pursuit of facts with evidence to back it up. *That* is what it means to know.

Also, the semantic difference between “I know” as it is used all the time when it *should* read “we, as in ‘everybody’, knows” is far too abused and overlooked in these kind of talks. Could I ask ever so kindly for us to be a bit more astute to it?

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Justfinethanks January 31, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Steven Stark: Sometimes I think we should wipe our minds clean of world views, of learning, just temporarily, and just be aware.

The Buddhists have been doing this for thousands of years. They call it mindfulness meditation.

http://altmedicine.about.com/cs/mindbody/a/Meditation.htm

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that essentially involves focusing on your mind on the present. To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts and actions in the present, without judging yourself.

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Hermes January 31, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Re: meditation, simple awareness

It’s not hard to do, but does take practice in a comfortable and quiet place, and something to focus on.

The focal item can be your breath. Some people use a visual cue such as a flame or a dot on the wall, though you have to consider the distraction of blinking if you use a visual cue. An auditory cue like a metronome or other steady click or a specific wave form may also help, though of the two I’d recommend the metronome. Personally, I direct all my focus on an imagined color and then put all my effort into maintaining that color then slowly and in control moving from that color to another color. This seems to help with both focus and eliminating time as a reminder.

Unlike the directions in the link, I don’t focus on breathing at all and as such I specifically don’t do step #4 or #5.

I become aware of breathing and other normally autonomic events like heart rate and how I feel in any part of my body including internal organs (to some respect) as a result of reaching a meditative state.

If I think I’m going to loose track of time, I set a timer to alert me so that I have one less thing to consider.

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Hermes January 31, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Oh, also, the darker the room the better.

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Rick January 31, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Jake de Backer:I’ll keep my mind open to evidence and spiritual experience but my heart stays closed unless by-pass is required.
J.  

I agree that the phrasing is a bit stilted, old-fashioned, and quasi-spiritual. It’s exactly the thing you’d expect someone who believes in duality to say. However, I trust the neuroscience that has pinpointed emotional states to the brain – those same emotions that are typically expressed as residing in the heart, such as love, compassion, joy, and to a degree, openness.

The phrase is akin to a couple–in which only one partner is pregnant–expressing, “We’re pregnant!” Sure, biologically only one is, but it’s an experience for both partners. My smile usually escapes to my face.

So when someone says keep your heart open, I interpret it to mean don’t be coldly rational and encephalitic. But it still makes me roll my eyes a bit.

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Steven Stark January 31, 2010 at 9:11 pm

JustFineThanks – Absolutely!

and Hermes,

I always enjoy reading others’ meditation techniques. I could always use some tips.

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Hermes January 31, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Steven Stark: I always enjoy reading others’ meditation techniques. I could always use some tips.

Glad to oblige. I aim for simplicity, even if my explanation is not. Any clutter tends to kill it.

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lukeprog January 31, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Everyone understands that these letters are fictional, yes?

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Alex January 31, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Fictional? And yet it sounds so real.

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Briang January 31, 2010 at 11:48 pm

lukeprog: Everyone understands that these letters are fictional, yes?  

I caught that, but not at first. Thanks for the reminder. It seems a tad strange for atheists to attack a Christian that exists solely in the mind of an atheist. There are plenty of us real Christians to go around.

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Bram van Dijk February 1, 2010 at 12:25 am

I’m glad my heart is open, allows the blood to flow through it.

But your heart shouldn’t be too open, or you’ll die within minutes.

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Briang February 1, 2010 at 12:26 am

I think that the idea behind the phrase “keep your heart open” is that God as understood by Christians is a personal being, who wants a relationship with us. It seems to me that this is the kind of God worth debating about and I think that atheists tend to agree. (Although the deism is sometimes acknowledged as a possibility, I haven’t seen much interest in it from the leading popularizers of atheism.)
If God was like the Great Green Arkleseizure* from Hitcher’s Guide to the Galaxy, I don’t think he would have captured any of our interests to even be worthy of discussion. If “the First Cause” was merely the vacuum energy out of which our universe sprang, so what? It wouldn’t matter to any of us. These may, of course, be interesting theoretical questions and those of us who love knowledge for it’s own sake might discuss them, but there’s no sense in speaking of opening one’s heart to “Great Green Arkleseizure” or to vacuum energy.
But the Christian God is different. While, some atheist are happy not to believe, many have said something to the effect of “gosh, I wish it were true.” No one says that they wish the Great Green Arkleseizure were real, even if they believe he’s just as fictional as the Christian God. I think it’s the personal nature of the Christian God that makes the difference.

* see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Places_in_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy

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Alex February 1, 2010 at 1:49 am

Briang: I’d love to know who said that they wished it was true; most atheist I know reject Christianity for all the reasons of the character of God, the setting of mankind and the general disbelief in that such a cruel and stupid setting would be made by some ultimate being, an amalgam of absurdity and disgust.

The Christian god is no different from a host of other gods who also are personal in much the same ways. The personal nature of (the Christian) god is no quantifier for why it should be interesting. Brahma isn’t more interesting than the Christian god than D’taar than Loke in the right mood. Personal gods have always been around, even though the Roman and Greek ones took special interest in *not* being personal and has flooded the market for distant gods.

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Edson February 1, 2010 at 3:08 am

The world is full of pointless suffering that an all-powerful, all-good God would not permit. The universe does not appear benevolent, but instead indifferent to our pain or pleasure.

To say that the world is full of pointless suffering is in itself – if inadvertently – pointless. There can be no truly frank and forthright discussion about theology of sufferings without acknowledging the excitement of the phenomenon of life and the common humanity aspiration – a struggle for life because we believe this world, despite its sporadic flaws, is still a good and worthy place to live. Now, if Paul and Karl reach a point where they can agree that the world and life is good and awesome, a meaningful debate about the nature of an all-good Christian God and his apparent indifference to sufferings can take place.

Ironically, it is Christian theology and its historical and contemporary relevance to humanity that lies fundamentally at the core of human sufferings. If Christian solutions to human sufferings does not convince Paul, that will be because Paul and Karl see the same thing from different perspectives. Either one’s angle of view is right and the other is wrong.

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Edson February 1, 2010 at 3:46 am

There are hundreds of religions. If God wanted people to know him, why wouldn’t he communicate more clearly, so that billions of people weren’t mislead by a false religion? And why would he allow nearly a billion people around the world like me to see no evidence of him at all?

The existance of myriad religions is no more a valid argument for the non existance of God and His clarity than the existance of myriad political inclinations from extreme Right to extreme Left is for the existance of USA Constitution and its interpretability. If Paul, and other billion people, cannot see the evidence of clear evidence of God, that is, as I said earlier, a matter of perspective.

It is fine that Paul should not agree with Karl when it comes to the existance of God. But if Paul insist he is right and Karl the same, the only ways left for them to resolve this impasse is for both to shut-up, or continue colliding until truth sparks from collision. Of course, it will be a win-win outcome.

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Hermes February 1, 2010 at 3:58 am

Briang: But the Christian God is different. While, some atheist are happy not to believe, many have said something to the effect of “gosh, I wish it were true.”

What was the old saying about ‘if ifs and ands were pots and pans…’?

On that, I’ll make 2 points;

1. Beliefs aren’t reality. While I personally try to make my beliefs match what I know about reality, the two — reality and beliefs — don’t mix without force and chaos just as the chief ingredients of Italian salad dressing don’t. As such, I acknowledge what is a mere belief and work towards a more knowledgeable understanding of what actually is.

2. The deity those hypothetical atheists (many of whom are probably just being nice or conciliatory) would like to have is not Yahweh. Well, it’s less Yahweh than even the watered down and make-nice version of Yahweh from children’s illustrated Bibles. The deity they are talking about isn’t Yahweh, it’s an idealized version of Superman with a magic wand.

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Edson February 1, 2010 at 6:16 am

In some ways, I would be quite relieved to rediscover God.

Paul, in his letter to Karl, wishes theism was true (apparently that of revealed religions, particularly Christian theism because Paul was formally a Christian) while Hermes in his response to Briang wishes Christian theism was false as, to him, the idea of one day facing such a monster as Yahweh is abhorrent, at best.

This is one of those areas that gives Christians a hard time pin down atheist arguments and to ever take any atheist seriously. Just like Chesterton observed in his book Orthodoxy:

It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodoxy theology. They sowed in my mind the first wild doubts of doubt……..This odd effect of the great agnostics in arousing dobts deeper than their own might be illustrated in many ways….As I read and reread all the non Christian or anti Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression gradually but garphically grew upon my mind – the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons…..But the extraordinary thing is this: they did prove to me in Chapter 1 that Christianity was too optimistic; and then in Chapter 2, they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic……

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Edson February 1, 2010 at 6:24 am

Correcting a copyst error on Chesterton quote: But the extraordinary thing is this: they did prove to me in Chapter 1 that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then in Chapter 2, they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic……

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Reginald Selkirk February 1, 2010 at 6:38 am

Edson: The existance of myriad religions is no more a valid argument for the non existance of God and His clarity than the existance of myriad political inclinations from extreme Right to extreme Left is for the existance of USA Constitution and its interpretability.

Pthththt. That is just about the lamest analogy I have ever read. The constitution exists, but it is not an all-knowing, all-loving person who controls the eternal fate of all mankind. There is no supernatural, invisible James Madison in the sky whispering to us what he really meant.

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Edson February 1, 2010 at 6:53 am

Reginald Selkirk, there is the Bible. I think most Christians derive most of their loyalty to God from this inspired book.

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Hermes February 1, 2010 at 8:04 am

Edson: while Hermes in his response to Briang wishes Christian theism was false as, to him, the idea of one day facing such a monster as Yahweh is abhorrent, at best.

The bolded parts aren’t even in the same universe of what I wrote.

Only the italicized part is close to accurate, but then again so is Voldemort. If only that one part were referenced in context, you might have actually convinced me that you understood any one word of what I do actually think and what I did indeed write.

Edson: This is one of those areas that gives Christians a hard time pin down atheist arguments and to ever take any atheist seriously.

It’s interesting what you can attribute to someone when you just make it all up. Maybe it’s a form of cognitive dissonance on your part?

As for your quote, maybe I should switch to using Homeopathic remedies instead of medicines that have completed a series of clinical trials for efficacy? After all, they are seriously railed against from many quarters of society. If not that sugar water, maybe instead I should go for something stronger and even more an anathema? Heroine, perhaps? Maybe we’ve been lied to on that narcotic as well and it’s really a wonder drug? In each case, though, I think I’ll deal with reality and not take up that path or the one your quote promotes just to be some kind of ye-olde-age curiosity seeker.

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Hermes February 1, 2010 at 8:15 am

Edson: Reginald Selkirk, there is the Bible. I think most Christians derive most of their loyalty to God from this inspired book.  

I encourage every Christian to read the Christian Bible in whatever form they have it. Here are well over a dozen;

http://www.biblegateway.com

Here’s are some audio versions;

http://librivox.org/newcatalog/search.php?title=bible&author=&status=complete&action=Search

There are many more places to get it as well, and some groups will send you a free copy. The dollar stores and discount stores have the Bible broken into parts for a buck or two a CD. Many libraries also carry it.

Read the Christian Bible. Please! We get more atheists that way.

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Reginald Selkirk February 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

Edson: Reginald Selkirk, there is the Bible. I think most Christians derive most of their loyalty to God from this inspired book.  

Move those goal posts!

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Briang February 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

Alex: Briang: I’d love to know who said that they wished it was true; most atheist I know reject Christianity for all the reasons of the character of God, the setting of mankind and the general disbelief in that such a cruel and stupid setting would be made by some ultimate being, an amalgam of absurdity and disgust.
The Christian god is no different from a host of other gods who also are personal in much the same ways. The personal nature of (the Christian) god is no quantifier for why it should be interesting. Brahma isn’t more interesting than the Christian god than D’taar than Loke in the right mood. Personal gods have always been around, even though the Roman and Greek ones took special interest in *not* being personal and has flooded the market for distant gods.  

The personal nature of the Christian God makes God worth debating. Your right in that it doesn’t add anything over and above non-Christian God’s who are also personal.

As far as atheist’s who wished it were true, from Luke de-conversion story:

It didn’t last. Every time I reached out for some reason – any reason – to believe, God simply wasn’t there. I tried to believe despite the evidence, but I couldn’t believe a lie. Not anymore.

No matter how much I missed him, I couldn’t bring Jesus back to life.

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Briang February 1, 2010 at 9:52 am

Hermes:
What was the old saying about ‘if ifs and ands were pots and pans…’?On that, I’ll make 2 points;1. Beliefs aren’t reality.While I personally try to make my beliefs match what I know about reality, the two — reality and beliefs — don’t mix without force and chaos just as the chief ingredients of Italian salad dressing don’t.As such, I acknowledge what is a mere belief and work towards a more knowledgeable understanding of what actually is.2. The deity those hypothetical atheists (many of whom are probably just being nice or conciliatory) would like to have is not Yahweh.Well, it’s less Yahweh than even the watered down and make-nice version of Yahweh from children’s illustrated Bibles.The deity they are talking about isn’t Yahweh, it’s an idealized version of Superman with a magic wand.  

Belief don’t make something reality. Wishing doesn’t make something reality. Reality is what it is whether we wish it or not.

The point I was trying to illustrate was why people talk about matter’s of the heart in discussions about God. This is certainly different then how we talk about other hypothesizes, but it’s not unexpected given the personal nature of God.

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Hermes February 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

Briang, I understand. Thank you for the clarification.

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Precambrian_Cat February 1, 2010 at 10:48 am

lukeprog: Everyone understands that these letters are fictional, yes?  

:-)

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Reginald Selkirk February 1, 2010 at 11:24 am

lukeprog: fiction

I do now.

Since the theist’s God is fictional, the theist himself may as well be.

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Reginald Selkirk February 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

you dated my ex-girlfriend

Yeah, Paul, but for Karl she actually put out.

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Alex February 1, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Briang: “As far as atheist’s who wished it were true, from Luke de-conversion story”

No, that’s not wanting things to be real; that is missing the bits that you were ok with. Jesus in the trinity was the meek and mild version of God, while peek ever so gently at OT and see a very different one.

Just because you miss something and want it back doesn’t mean you really should. This is called photogenetic memory and is quite wide-spread, it is how abused women take back their abusive husbands, the job you quit without thinking the people you escaped are still there, or people wishing they could get their girlfriend back without thinking too hard about the fights, and so on. Although, this makes the whole personal Jesus that much more pertinent.

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Briang February 2, 2010 at 9:40 am

Alex,

Here’s a quote from Hitchens I found in a book I’m reading:

“There are, after all, atheists who say they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or who have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died?”

Qouted in The New Atheism, by Victor J. Stenger

Alex, do you think that Hitchens is speaking of a mere hypothetical person, in order to drive home his point, or do you think he actually believes that there are people who wish it were true?

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Hermes February 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

Briang, it’s rare but some do. Much of the time I find someone saying or writing such a thing, they are either recently reverted to non-theism or are saying so as a way to build a bridge with Christians. I take the quote from Hitchens as something directed at Christians to push the point home that it is not a good thing to follow Yahweh and that they should consider whom they keep company with.

Both of those examples aside, the usual attitude is that the Christian deity Yahweh is just not especially interesting. That it is like any other character from a story book from a not very compelling set of stories.

Better yet to have an idle dream of being Superman or Batman. Yahweh is not taken more seriously than either of those comic book characters.

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Alex February 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Briang: No, I’m sure he didn’t make it up; there are atheists out there who “wished it was true.” But I seriously question their wishes to be well thought-out, especially since often huge parts of the Christian belief system is what drove them to unbelief to begin with.

How much killing did God stand responsible for in the OT? I’m fairly sure they didn’t wish that to be true. They probably have loved ones who don’t believe, and as such would go to hell, and I’m sure they didn’t mean for that to be true. In fact, I’d say they probably are only referring to a very small part of the whole picture, and if I allow myself to speculate further, probably only the Jesus part and perhaps the part where there really *is* some eternal judgement for all those assholes of the world that seems to able to keep doing the crap they do.

Ultimately, it’s about our sense of justice that drives such wishes, nothing more, but people are easy to forget that that “justice” (I could write a whole book on why it isn’t just alone) comes with pain, suffering, hate, anger, sacrifices (in blood), a hierarchy of otherworldly places and creatures, an existence conundrum, an incompatibility with the natural world, and on and on the list goes.

Yes, it’s great to think you could have a friend in Jesus if it was true, but that friendship comes with a host of bi-products that I’m more than sure they do *not* wish were true. They don’t want it all to be true, only that small part which seems comforting.

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Alex February 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Oh, and I should also mention people’s true want for living longer, perhaps even eternally (even though I think that’s poorly thought-out). Fear of death is real no matter if you believe in an after-life or not.

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Briang February 2, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Alex and Hermes,

Thanks for explaining the thinking of atheists on the subject.

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Hermes February 2, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Briang: Thanks for explaining the thinking of atheists on the subject.  

Keep in mind that our comments are based on what we encounter as non-theists in the social groups (mostly English speaking “Western”) we travel in.

Ask a non-theist in India or Saudi Arabia or non-theistic Buddhists — or even ones not interested in the variegated air of rooms made up of narrowly focused blogs and forums — to comment and you might get quite different answers.

We don’t speak for all non-theists, just as a Jehovah’s Witness theist does not speak for a Mormon let alone either speak for a Yoruba (African indigenous) theist or a Mayan (even Catholicized) or larger groups like Hindus, Confucians, Taoists, … or theistic Buddhists.

The variety of people who have theistic beliefs and those who do not are very hard to speak for as any kind of unified group.

Is there some unity across all non-theists beyond just not being theists? Maybe, but that survey has not been done on the non-theist side(???) and similar reviews are spotty at best on the theist side and are mostly based on assertions of unity by pantheists.

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Briang February 3, 2010 at 9:47 am

Hermes,

I understand that there is no unified belief system of atheists. I almost said something to that effect in my last comment; however, I chose not to, because I thought it would sound too dismissive of your comments. I have found that there are a number of general statements about atheists, that can help us theists understand them even though they may not be universally applicable.

Here’s an observation that may help. I noticed that atheists typically define atheism as “a lack of belief in any god or deity.” It seems to me, that this is a wider category of people then would identify themselves as atheists. Many people who might fit the definition, would not self-identify with the term “atheist.” I think that there may be more unity in those that are self-described atheists, then those who happen to meet the definition but would not call themselves atheists.

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Hermes February 3, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Briang: I noticed that atheists typically define atheism as “a lack of belief in any god or deity.” It seems to me, that this is a wider category of people then would identify themselves as atheists. Many people who might fit the definition, would not self-identify with the term “atheist.” I think that there may be more unity in those that are self-described atheists, then those who happen to meet the definition but would not call themselves atheists.

I’ll say one thing up front before going on my rant (one not directed at you FWIW);

I think that many self-described theists or religionists aren’t theists at all. They are atheists who like being called Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Jews, … or Catholics, or Lutherans.

You’ve heard the terms “cultural Jew” or “secular Jew”, well for about 10 years I was a “cultural Catholic”. If you asked if I was religious or had a religion, I’d just say “Well, I’m Catholic.” without much fuss. There are even priests who are culturally religious, but actually atheists, and I can understand that. The Christian Bible is a wonderful tool for understanding the Christian core beliefs and how well they line up with reality. If you have a dedicated book club and can make a living on that, more power to you as long as you don’t abuse anyone.

But, I’ll keep it personal for a moment.

So, I was a “cultural Catholic”. Why? Well, when I was very young — maybe 8, maybe 12 — I figured out that the grand and impossible stories were just that. Stories.

That revelation was entirely un-revelatory. It was just a dull admission no more shocking or note worthy than figuring out Santa.

I thought that nobody who wasn’t a child really thought those stories were accurate descriptions of something real. They all fell solidly in the same category as Santa, elves, the Easter Bunny, and other fantasy. Yet, the trick — like Santa and the Tooth Fairy — was to not ruin that discovery for those who hadn’t figured it out yet. That’s just mean. Yet, there were stories that had some significance.

Time passes.

Today, and for quite some time, I don’t find anything ennobling with being identified as a Catholic so I’m not one. The Bible isn’t as good a book as I thought it was. While I don’t spoil Santa for children, I see no reason to support Yahweh/Jesus in the same way. I also see quite a few reasons why I should rock that boat and act like the little boy in the crowd who points out the obvious; not only does the deity lack clothes, but the missing clothes are missing a deity as well.

* * *

Shifting gears, note that that blurb above was not the rant I mentioned before. The rant follows…

* * *

Have you heard anyone mention being a “non-stamp collector”? It doesn’t say much, does it? Well, if about 80% of people around you were self-avowed philatelists (fans of stamps and the mail system), and would make a big deal about you not being one too, what would happen next?

Well, we’ve run that experiment with many groups divided over sex, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political orientation, or even general views on life. We know in general what would happen and why, even if not the specifics.

So, we know what happens; no matter what the non-stamp collectors call themselves, the philatelists would make a point of that new name and that it was somehow beneath them. The only ‘out’ from the name-change game would be to give in and stop being non-stamp collectors. But, is that honest? More importantly, does it even work? Yes, lying to yourself or to others is often necessary and more comfortable in the short term if you can get away with it.

Back to reality. The question I have for you is did that tactic — giving in to the status quo — work for the homosexuals? Did it work for those of African descent in the USA? What do both groups use now? Do homosexuals shrink from using the word “gay”, or do they claim it? Do people of African descent leave the word “nigger” to those who would label them “nigger”, or have they claimed the word for themselves — vigorously even to the point of excluding people not of African descent?

The people who chose to not identify themselves as non-theists or atheists are right; they aren’t defined by not clinging to what some other groups cling to. Yet, by doing so they aren’t doing themselves any good either.

I want to agree with Sam Harris’ advice (below) and to some respect I do. I can say the same about the Brights, and the people who label themselves rational thinkers, freethinkers, or Humanists. Sure, I have no problem with those groups as long as they claim their non-theism or atheism at the same time — because they are still the theistic version of the old word niggers. They’re still the theistic version of the old word fags and gays and homos. Till they suck it up and claim the word atheist for how it is basic and it is true and potentially even noble if done right in any of a multitude of ways, they’re just going to play word games with the theists who won’t care what words are used but that those godless heathens need to stop being atheists and start being theists.

That some theists see these word games as dishonest is spot on correct. An atheist, a non-theist, is what these people are — to the theists. So, I don’t collect stamps. I’m not a philatelist. I’m an aphilatelist. I’m also not a theist. I am an atheist.

If calling attention to my atheism — my niggerdom, my gayness — embarrasses or confuses those who don’t recognize that they can’t avoid it in majority theistic societies, I can’t imagine what would be a better way to be. If I were anymore silent in day-to-day life, I may as well wear a cross.

So, I disagree with Sam Harris — yet, at the same time I would like to see a time when it is not necessary to do so. I say that with the same fervor as Martin Luther King, Jr. had when he spoke of his dreams, and I hope that Christians specifically have the good faith and introspection needed to reform their religion once again. It surely does need it.

* * *

Sam Harris’ arguing against the label ‘atheist’/'atheism’;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ok2oJgsGR6c

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsrtOZdJitA

Transcript;

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/sam_harris/2007/10/the_problem_with_atheism.html

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Briang February 4, 2010 at 9:23 am

I’ve seen that Sam Harris video. I think the lady at the beginning may have single-handedly turned atheism into a religion.

I don’t understand what the big deal is about the word “atheist”. I don’t think that it’s the same as a racial slur. I don’t know if theists made up the word or not. But it seems that word or no word we’d still be having the same kinds of discussions. I believe in God, you don’t. How do we evaluate the evidence?

Here’s how I see the difference between self-described atheists and atheists by definition. The self-described atheists have thought about the question of God and religion, definition atheists haven’t.

As a Catholic, I’m not particularly happy with “cultural Catholics.” Sometimes we call them “Christmas/Easter Catholics” because the church all the sudden becomes packed on those two days. They make it look like our Church doesn’t stand for anything. They don’t believe the teachings; they don’t live it.

I think in many cases they haven’t really thought about what they believe. I don’t see why it should be more respectable to be an atheist in this latter sense.

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Hermes February 4, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Briang, I was working up a long reply again but have decided not to.

Brief replies paragraph by paragraph;

* Two comments:

- So, religion is a bad thing? :-)
- Your impression is simply wrong, fractally. (She’s a comedian generally an enthusiastic person. On top of that, she’s supposed to give a fawning introduction. That’s the point of an an introduction. For more, look her up; Julia Sweeney.)

* Already covered. The evidence isn’t working in favor of Christian beliefs, and I say that with quite charitably.

* Maybe for some. That doesn’t change if they are atheists or not. Others are attempting to make nice with the largely self-described Christians around them. See Dennett’s “Belief in Belief” for another take on this;

Brief (1.5 minutes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tN8BHD9sXJ8

Longer (25 minutes);
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yzbt6QY6NuY
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8YC30DbIh8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viM4cKQkADY

* The ‘cultural Christians’ I mentioned included priests. I made a special point of mentioning that so that there would be no confusion, bus alas. There are others who are honest about their _religious_ dedication to Christianity while they are not theists or are at a minimum not monotheistic but instead deistc or polytheistic or pantheistic. FWIW: I went to Mass 9 times out of 10 in the last few years before I decided that was not a moral decision and that I should associate with better company. Counting ‘cultural Christians’ based on attendance isn’t a reliable method.

* So, most people don’t. Ever. Yet, I would contend that most of those (by number and percentage) are theists of any stripe and not atheists of any stripe. Now, having been a Catholic of some sort before — though I have no problem if you want to deny me that or having been a theist or religious person at all — I find it curious that you’re talking about beliefs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the main thing is the chain of command in Catholicism, not the religious texts. Not the beliefs, but the following of that chain. The interpretations are handed down, and thus are ‘believed’ by association. This I think was a wise decision. After all, when the Protestants got hold of the text for themselves they quickly shattered into tens of thousands of sects, while Catholics can claim one ‘universal’ religion no matter how angry the Protestants protest.

Enough of that. Even my blunt summaries are plenty to chew on. Maybe you can bring more to the feast next time?

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Hermes February 4, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Bah. That was quite sloppy. I do most of my best work after the first edit, and this blog doesn’t allow for any editing.

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